COLUMBIA, SC — It took standing in the presence of a pope on the University of South Carolina’s Horseshoe for the self-possessed young man from Queens, N.Y., to realize he should marshal his skills and make the most of the opportunities he had.
Stephen K. Benjamin was 17, and trying to adjust to how different life was in Columbia than in a borough of New York City that had half as many residents as the entire Palmetto State.
Ambitious, confident and incisive, young Benjamin would come to avail himself of a range of programs and mentors who would guide not only his college life but set a course for his career.
It’s a path that the newly re-elected mayor of the Capital City is seeking to help plow for other promising young people. Through his Mayor’s Fellows program, Benjamin has arranged for almost 90 college students to get real-life glimpses into the functions of government, problem solving and leadership.
A different world
Benjamin attended nearly all-African-American August Martin High School in the South Ozone Park neighborhood.
Of the 434 students who started as freshmen, 190 graduated, he said.
His interactions with white people occurred mostly during his junior high school years, when Benjamin and his friends were bused to a school in Howard Beach, a largely Italian neighborhood that was the home of mobster John Gotti, musician Woody Guthrie and known for its racial crimes.
“Columbia was foreign to me,” recalls Benjamin, who until August 1987 had spent occasional summers with his parents’ relatives in Orangeburg and Calhoun counties.
Benjamin said for the first few weeks, he enjoyed student life and did not work to his potential.
On Sept. 11, 1987, Pope John Paul II came to Columbia at the invitation of USC president James Holderman. The pontiff addressed students on campus.
“I’m looking at the pope, dude,” Benjamin recalled thinking to himself. “Little more than a couple months ago, you didn’t know you were even coming here, and now you’re sitting here, near one of the most powerful men in the world.”
“I was a blank canvas,” he said. “I came here wide-eyed.”
The papal exposure opened a teenage Benjamin’s eyes to what USC could offer.
By the time Benjamin graduated in 1992, he had been involved in about three dozen student groups, he estimates. He became a student senator, student body president, helped form Students for a Better Carolina, was a dormitory hall adviser, joined the student chapter of the NAACP and was the only student to be part of the search committee to replace a then-disgraced Holderman with John Palms. Benjamin said he maintains his ties to Palms and many others he met during his university life, which included three years of law school.
Benjamin, who is about to turn 44, looks back fondly on his years as a Gamecock and especially on the peers and adults who guided him.
“My experience at the university shaped my world view,” Benjamin said. “And I’ve been paying it forward through the Mayor’s Fellows.”
Use gifts for good
In 1988, Benjamin got his first taste of Columbia politics as a volunteer for then-Rep. Tim Rogers.
That’s when Benjamin also forged a friendship with James Smith, who had been Rogers’ page and worked on his campaigns. Now-Rep. Smith has held Rogers’ old seat for 16 years.
But the mentoring Benjamin cites more often came from his peers – fellow African-American students he met through USC’s Minority Assistance Program, commonly called MAP, because it’s designed to provide non-white students with roadmaps to success.
Tracey Watkins was among the early mentors of the program that began in 1985 and has helped about 4,500 minority students. She found Benjamin to be earnest and eager to become well-rounded.
“Steve had leadership qualities that were very evident, even as a freshman,” said Watkins, a 47-year-old attorney who works in Washington, D.C., with STG International, a healthcare delivery firm for federal defense and civilian clients. “He had the ability to engage people. He had the ability to influence people,” she recalled last week.
“I used to tell him, ‘You’ve got to use that quality for good,’” Watkins said. Watkins, then a senior, describes the young Benjamin as “a go-getter,” always asking penetrating questions about the university’s policies and whether USC delivered on its promises.
Yet Benjamin enjoyed the usual student distractions, Watkins said. “He had a full, robust Carolina experience,” she said, chuckling. “He didn’t have a halo over his head.”
Watkins, also born in Queens but raised in Georgetown, S.C., said she cautioned the young man from New York that life is different here.
“You have to respect what you don’t understand until you’re in a better position to understand,” Watkins remembers telling Benjamin.
“He has a comfort with a diverse population, diverse ideas and getting to the bottom line,” she said. “Those are things we learned at USC. I believe that freshman year was crucial for him.”
Benjamin had the most trouble with the slower pace in Columbia, Watkins said. His critics today often say Benjamin is not deliberative enough on big decisions such as the multi-million-dollar Bull Street development agreement.
Jim Stuckey was a year ahead of Benjamin at USC and in the school’s Honors College. The Bishopville native met Benjamin through mutual friends and the African-American Students Association.
“It’s probably more accurate to say we mentored each other,” said Stuckey, a former chief counsel for former-Gov. Jim Hodges and now with utility giant SCANA Corp.
Stuckey, 45, describes Benjamin as serious about his studies and developing his leadership skills.
“You sensed it intuitively ... just by the way he carried himself and how he spent his time,” Stuckey said.
More do-er than talker
The Rev. Charles White is the field director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Raised in Hollywood, S.C., a small town southwest of Charleston, White was the eldest of Benjamin’s student mentors at USC.
“There was a culture at the University of South Carolina among African-American students that we were being molded into future leaders,” White, now based in Baltimore, said. “We were bold and bodacious.
“We knew we were in a place of privilege that had not been afforded to many (black) people before us,” he said, recalling that he was the third African-American from his Baptist Hill High School to attend USC.
While other students partied on weekends, White, Benjamin and other black students attended NAACP meetings or organizing events for minorities and other activists.
White said he saw a future politician in Benjamin.
“If he wasn’t going to be the first African-American governor of South Carolina, he was going to be the first African-American governor that was not born in South Carolina,” she said. “That was a clear picture. He was going to be a powerful politician.”
Dennis Pruitt, who has worked in USC’s student affairs division for 31 years, got to know Benjamin during Benjamin’s year as student body president.
“Stephen is in the mold of the student body presidents ... who took advantage of all the opportunities,” Pruitt said. “Those students are driven, they’re purposeful. He was one of those well-rounded persons. He followed the MAP, but he sort of developed his own map. He wasn’t a talker. He was a do-er.”
Pruitt remembers Benjamin as quick-witted, “a little bit reserved, very polite.”
As are many student leaders, Benjamin was thrust into the adult world because of his responsibilities, especially representing students on the presidential search committee. Benjamin matured particularly while a residence hall adviser, helping student neighbors navigate not only campus life but their personal lives, Pruitt said.
Benjamin remembered those experiences enough that he returned in 2010 to speak to 230 new advisers, Pruitt said. That was just after he’d been elected mayor – a history-making election of Columbia’s first African-American mayor.
Leadership guidance for others
Shortly after Benjamin was elected the first time, he created the Mayor’s Fellows program.
Promising college students are selected and assigned to the mayor’s office, 10 at a time, for a semester. The long-term goal is to teach them about being leaders.
“I take them to meetings they would never get to go to,” Benjamin said, citing as examples the executive committee of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce and with a general counsel of a foreign nation.
Students come mostly from Columbia’s USC, Benedict, Allen, Columbia College and South University. But some are from Duke in North Carolina and Amherst in Massachusetts, Benjamin said. None is paid.
Jonathan Battaglia interned in the program during the spring of 2011. Then a journalism student at USC, he got to apply his writing and reporting skills to help Benjamin with news releases, speech writing and upgrading his Facebook page.
“It was kind of an introduction to public relations,” said Battaglia, now 23 and doing that kind of work for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union in Maryland.
“Working for the mayor and doing those sorts of things – and the work at the Gamecock (student newspaper), I couldn’t have had a better primer for real-life experience,” he said.
Benjamin said he still consults with mentors he developed as far back as USC, including elected officials and others who worked in the Legislature and state government.
“When I’m feeling smart, I ask them for their advice, and I don’t feel as smart anymore,” Benjamin said. “But I’m better educated.”